The Art of Globalization or How the NBA Conquered the World [Partie 1/2]

Some names transcend their sports and some transcend sports. Among these names we find Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, whose tragic death showed the degree of fame. For the orange ball in general, we will add Magic Johnson, LeBron James, Kareem Abdul Jabbar or Stephen Curry and many others from the other side of the Atlantic, but also Tony Parker in France.

These names are quite modern: some are still playing, others are young retirees. It would be tempting to think that its professionalization and importance in the cultural space is the fate of sport, which has only grown on the scale of the 20th century and has continued until recently. But who doesn’t know Pele or Muhammad Ali? Bruce Lee or Jesse Owens? American basketball existed in the 1960s and 1970s. A legend like Bill Russell was recognized as an example of African-American athletes of the 1960s who fought for civil rights in the United States alongside Martin Luther King. He was virtually unknown in France until his death in July 2022.

But how can we explain this discrepancy between basketball and other sports, and the cultural and collective representation of the orange ball?

All this is not just a matter of situation. We can explain how the NBA is National Basketball Association, led to the emergence of basketball as a major sport in the cognitive and cultural space. Originally invented by Professor James Naismith to keep young people busy during the summer, the simple national sports league is today the leading brand of one of the three most popular sports on the planet (third only after football). cricket boosted by India and Pakistan) and the only sport invented in the United States to conquer the planet.

Thanks to David Stern, the main architect of the Major League, everything has been thought of. Commissioner from 1984 to 2012, he made the NBA what it is today. His work began by cementing the League’s place in the American landscape before opening it up to the world by leading the first attempt to globalize the NBA brand.

If the League was relatively well known in the United States in the 1960s, the legendary rivalry between Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain almost killed it when the two giants retired. The competitive league was more attractive to young stars – with innovative concepts such as the three-point line or the dunk contest – image problems due to players taking drugs… The NBA was at its worst in the early 1980s. rights were starved – few matches were broadcast live – and their halls were almost empty.

Legendary players and David Stern: The Dream Team that conquered the 1990s

1984 is a year that resonates with anyone who knows the Major Leagues. It saw the arrival of names like Hakeem Olajuwon, John Stockton, Charles Barkley and especially Michael Jordan who would inspire the connection between the NBA and Africa. So they join Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, the two biggest stars of the era. Together, they will be at the beginning of a nickname that will forever mark the history of the sport: DreamTeam. However, perhaps the most important arrival of 1984 is off the floor, as David Stern replaces Larry O’Brien as Major League Commissioner.

In the NBA world, it is often said that Larry Bird and Magic Johnson saved the League. Their rivalry, which eventually turned into friendship, is so legendary that it has managed to transcend the confines of sports. The duel of basketball players with contrasting playing styles turned into a culture clash; Celtics of Bird’s white and needy Boston versus glitzy Hollywood and stars Magic Lakers. It was this cultural phenomenon that allowed the League to save its audience and enter the history of American and then world culture. But all this history is written not only on parquet floors.

David Stern built the narrative around this rivalry and made it central to the League’s brand image. It was no longer about watching a basketball game between two teams, but about participating in a duel between two icons who represented the two faces of America: the black man from Michigan, the symbol of Hollywood glamor for Johnson, and old Boston for Bird, the symbol of Indiana rednecks. The desire to go beyond the sport to tell and, above all, sell the story through the explosion of television rights, advertising and jersey revenue, is even found in the choice of nickname: Earvin Johnson became Magic, Larry Bird, Larry. Legend. Their rivalry-friendship would be talked about both during matches and in commercials celebrating their era and seeing the two men become friends, thus cementing this relationship. storytelling about David Stern, who doesn’t ask for so much.

Paralleling this rise to the Major Leagues in the latter part of the 1980s, the young shoots of 1984 became outstanding players. Michael Jordan is well on his way to becoming an icon thanks to both his performances and ad campaigns celebrating Uncle Sam’s country as the famous “Be Like Mike.” His first pair of shoes, the Jordan 1, became a cultural phenomenon in its own right. If it was so successful because it fit Michael Jordan, it owes to Nike’s clever branding strategy, which seemed to ban Jordan from wearing it to sell it better.

However, drama on the ground occurred in 1988 when American scientists did not win the Olympic Games. Then David Stern had an idea that would change everything and leave a lasting mark on world culture: the United States would send a team of professional players, the Dream Team, to the Olympic Games for the first time. At the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, ​​he dazzled the planet; and not only bringing home the gold, he’s beating the competition by proving the absolute supremacy of the Major League in the orange ball world.

The 1990s were the focus of the NBA: brand values ​​exploded, jerseys sold, basketball became a street sport. Hip Hop, American stars are constantly traveling to sell TV rights, uniforms and compilations of their best moves. He was born in Paris Pier 54, George Eddy becomes the ambassador of basketball in France, and in the context of the Americanization of Western culture, basketball becomes more than a sport, but actually a cultural phenomenon. Europeans are starting to wear bands in braided hair, baggy jeans, brightly colored swimwear… Europe is becoming a market for this emerging brand that is getting bigger and bigger profits.

However, with the retirement of legends and the late 1990s, the League experienced a relatively low period. Cultural power is less important, but the strategy of internationalization has paid off: more and more young European players – like Dirk Nowitzki, Pau Gasol and Tony Parker – are coming to tread the American courts and act as mediators with Europe. In the area of ​​communication and influence, CBA will try a new strategy for globalization during this decade.

From Yao Ming to Daryl Morey: The first attempt to capture a major market in the 2000s

In 2002, Yao Ming, a Chinese basketball phenomenon, comes to the Houston Rockets with all the nascent hopes of a country just beginning to open up to the world. David Stern immediately sees the market he has to conquer and commits to making Yao Ming a star thanks to his talent and the NBA’s communication strategy.

Since his arrival, the NBA has been changing its voting systems to Chinese, French and Spanish to send fan favorite players to the All Star Game, and Yao will be selected to play in the All Star Game until his injuries are resolved.

This method of attracting the public is huge: fans are encouraged to advertise the League as much as possible if they want to see their favorite players play in the All-Star game. This creates the commitment of an extremely tight-knit and highly-consumptive fan community. In Yao’s wake, his country became the third NBA market, the Houston Rockets became a phenomenon in China, and 300 million Chinese took up basketball, dreaming of following in the footsteps of the Olympic torch bearer at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Only his injuries have slowed down the giant’s rise to fame and titles. Regardless, the NBA made it big in China and secured a huge market conquest. Little American players, at the end of their careers, will be freelancing for the CBA (Chinese Basketball Association) of which Yao is president, jerseys are sold and players go on promotional tours during the summer. Some even become the faces of Chinese brands and real stars in the Middle Kingdom, such as Dwyane Wade with Li Ning and Tony Parker, who he also sponsors. Peak. Nothing could break the link between Chinese basketball and the NBA, which became the most popular sport in China thanks to Yao.

If sport brings people together, the political reality is sometimes quite different. In the context of the tightening of the Chinese regime, the Chinese Communist Party did not digest the comments on the events of the president of the Houston Rockets – Yao Ming’s former franchise, Daryl Morey, who is by far the most popular and followed in China. Hong Kong and its support for democracy. The NBA, which has always stuck to its values ​​that made it a pioneer in the involvement of athletes in social issues in the United States, could do nothing about one of its representatives exercising their right to free speech. China’s politburo didn’t see it that way and severed ties between the NBA and China after Morey’s tweet at the time. tweet the most expensive in history.

So the NBA’s relationship with China pretty much disappeared until it rose from the ashes for a few years. The only consequences of this storm will be a small loss of income for a relatively short period of time. At the same time, the NBA had already begun to conquer Europe, which it had neglected in favor of the Middle Kingdom for 10 years, but which Tony Parkers, Pau Gasol and Dirk Nowitzki fulfilled. to maintain this relationship. between the new world and the old continent. Since the end of the Yao Ming era and the 2000s, the NBA has already focused its commercial development strategy on this emerging space, the interest of which is not yet fully understood everywhere: social networks and digital.

Theo Noël and Remy Bessiere

The second part of this analysis will be published on January 20. In the continuation of this historical analysis of the NBA, he will detail the outsourcing strategy put in place by the League to win hearts.

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